The Dems, Now Dancing to His Tune

By Perry Bacon Jr.
Sunday, April 6, 2008

As the Democratic presidential race turns into the political equivalent of the Battle of the Somme, lots of Democrats are glaring at the party's nominal leader, Howard Dean. The Democratic National Committee chairman (and 2004 White House hopeful) has not been able to force the race to a close or to fix a mess he helped create by tossing out the results of primaries in Michigan and Florida after their state parties violated DNC rules by jumping toward the front of the line in the campaign season. In 2004, Dean famously screamed at Democrats; in 2008, plenty of Democrats are screaming right back.

But Democrats have some good reasons to stop kicking Dean around. You don't hear the word "prescient" used very often to describe the much-maligned chairman, but one can make a pretty plausible case that his six years on the national Democratic scene have had a significant impact on his party -- on machinery, message and methods. If the Democrats win in 2008, they may come to thank Dr. Dean for providing the medicine that cured some of the party's ills.

Sen. Barack Obama's campaign has been groundbreaking on many levels, but its widely hailed use of the Internet to create a large base of small donors largely recycles the breakthrough that powered Dean's 2004 campaign. Joe Trippi, Dean's campaign manager, hired and ran the online fundraising team, but Dean himself had the foresight to embrace the Web revolution. Some 2008 candidates seem not to have followed suit: Despite having had more time to plan for her presidential run, Clinton has often found herself outmaneuvered at creative online fundraising by Obama, and unless Sen. John McCain builds a truly imposing Web-based money machine, he may find himself at a sizable fundraising disadvantage to either Democrat.

But it's not just Dean's tactics that have been widely influential in the Democratic Party; it's his words, too. Take education. In 2002, congressional Democrats overwhelmingly backed President Bush's No Child Left Behind law, which mandated annual testing in earlier grades. The legislation's merits are still hotly debated, but its politics are not: Experts say the law has flopped with parents, teachers, students and most others involved with education, who often describe its testing regime as unworkable. In 2003, Dean was among the first Democrats to start hammering No Child Left Behind for its testing system, but that criticism is everywhere now. Clinton lambastes it almost daily on the campaign trail; her husband, himself back on the stump, has called attacking No Child Left Behind the easiest way for a politician to get applause.

Dean's other key issue, of course, was Iraq. He made scathing criticism of the war his touchstone in 2003 and dared rival Democrats to do likewise. When Dean declared that the United States was no safer after the capture of Saddam Hussein, Sen. John F. Kerry, who was running on his foreign policy expertise, ridiculed the former Vermont governor. But there's scant disagreement now among Democrats about the merits of the war. In 2008, nearly every Democratic presidential candidate -- many of whom voted for the Senate resolution giving Bush the authority to go to war -- repeated the old Dean argument that Iraq was a massive blunder that distracted us from the larger war on al-Qaeda. And Obama, who often cites his 2002 speech opposing the war, has staked his candidacy on the theme that whatever he lacks in national security experience, he more than makes up for with judgment -- not that far from Dean's own case for himself as commander in chief.

Dean was making an even larger point when he declared in 2003-04 that he represented "the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party." Whatever success President Bill Clinton's brand of triangulation had met with in the 1990s, Dean argued, the time for split-the-difference politics was over. George W. Bush's Washington was being run by a highly partisan group of Republicans, Dean said, and he wanted the Democrats to "function as an opposition party." He struck a populist note, appealing directly to the party's base, and openly mocked Clinton-era centrists such as the Democratic Leadership Council (which replied that his candidacy was for Democrats who wanted to vent, not govern).

This presidential cycle seems to have ratified the populist shift that Dean had previewed; most of the Democratic candidates have at times sounded like versions of "people-powered Howard." Two leading DLC members, former Iowa governor Tom Vilsack and Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh, left the race early on, realizing that they had limited chances of winning in primaries dominated by more partisan activists. Even Obama, with his message of national unity, has taken some pains not to be portrayed as a classic Democratic centrist; in 2003, after the DLC listed Obama on its Web site as an up-and-coming state legislator, he publicly noted that he had not been a member of the group.

For her part, Clinton has edged away from some DLC themes and some aspects of her husband's record. She now brags about being a "progressive," offers a timetable for withdrawing troops from Iraq and says that she opposed the North American Free Trade Agreement as first lady (even as her husband aggressively promoted it). Obama and Clinton are both likely to move toward the center if nominated, but the drift of their party may be heading left -- thanks, in no small measure, to Dean.

As the Democrats tried to win back Congress in 2006, Dean found himself back at the center of controversy. The new DNC chairman set out to forge what he called the "50-state strategy," spending millions to start building party organizations in red states such as Alabama. That infuriated congressional Democrats who wanted to spend the money on targeted districts in swing states such as Ohio and Pennsylvania. The Democrats did win some congressional seats in GOP-leaning states such as Indiana in 2006, but even Dean might acknowledge that that had less to do with the small number of ground-level organizers he deployed than with weak GOP incumbents forced to defend an unpopular war. Still, Dean got some results: A study by Elaine Kamarck of Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government found that Democratic turnout in 2006 was higher in places where Dean's new organizers were working.

Dean's basic point was also something Democrats may come to embrace: Far more Democrats live in some very red states than you might guess, and if the Democrats want to build a permanent majority in Congress, they'll need to win at least some seats in those areas. (Consider an Obama rally in Boise last month that drew 14,000 people.) This year's long Democratic primary process may well be doing what Dean's DNC could not have afforded on its own: building Democratic organizations in states such as Idaho.

It's no accident that Obama, not Dean, is benefiting most from some of Dean's insights. The DNC chief's checkered track record makes it hard for some Democrats to laud him. Many Democrats say that he has by and large failed at building strong organizations, both during his presidential run and his tenure at the DNC, which finds itself with far less cash on hand than the Republican National Committee, despite the paucity of grass-roots enthusiasm for the GOP. Dean is also often described as weak in the two areas party chairs are supposed to excel at: raising money and providing "message discipline." Many Democrats still cringe when the loose-lipped former governor appears on television to push the party's message -- an anxiety that will probably only worsen in the fall. Meanwhile, his limited relationships with many party insiders have made it harder for him to referee party disputes, such as stopping Michigan and Florida from moving their primaries up, or persuade the two Democratic brawlers not to bloody each other.

But those shortcomings don't tarnish the underlying point: Howard Dean has been a man ahead of his time. When he leaves Washington for good next year, the improved fortunes he has helped bring to his party may be enough to make him want to scream.

Perry Bacon Jr. is a political reporter for The Washington Post.

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